Should we Pray for the Dead?
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and loved ones.” It is a familiar sentiment from political and religious leaders in the wake of calamities and outrages. It was expressed after the Nepal earthquake in April and again following the recent shootings in Charleston and Tunisia. It is a good sentiment. When people are suffering physical pain because of their injuries or emotional pain on account of their sudden loss we ought to have compassion towards them and ask the Lord to help them.
An Ancient Error
Some think that our concern should extend beyond those who are wounded in such events or bereaved as a result of them. They believe, misguidedly, that we also have a duty towards the departed. Praying for the dead is an ancient error which remains today. It is found in modern-day Judaism, in Islam and Hinduism and sadly also within Christianity, taken in its broadest sense.
Prayers for the dead were disapproved of at the Reformation, being cited in the National Covenant of 1638 as a mark of the ‘Roman Antichrist’. Our Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us that prayer is to be made “for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter; but not for the dead” (21:4). Yet the practice continues in the Roman Church. After the bin lorry tragedy in Glasgow in December the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow responded by asking “any person of faith to pray for those who have died and their relatives and those who have been injured.”
An Abhorrent Idea
For generations Protestants regarded the very idea of praying for the departed as abhorrent but nowadays the mention of it rarely provokes any comment. Why did our forefathers regard it as wrong and why is it still wrong? There are three chief reasons:
1) Our prayers are not needed by those who are in heaven
The Shorter Catechism declares the comforting truth concerning the Lord’s people: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory” (Q. 37). The apostle John wrote: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth” (Rev. 14:13). We may be sure that from the moment of their death believers are “in paradise” (Luke 23:43) and “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).
The Romish doctrine is very different. A Roman Catholic website states: “Prayer for the dead is one of the greatest acts of charity we can perform. Our prayers help the faithful departed during their time in Purgatory, so that they can enter more quickly into the fullness of heaven.” The theory behind ‘purgatory’ is that it is a sort of temporary hell where those who have been absolved of their sins but lacked in their penance pay the penalty due to those sins in order to satisfy God’s justice. The passage of the soul from purgatory to heaven can be helped by the faithful on earth, including through their prayers.
This false notion was manifest in March when the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster celebrated a requiem mass for King Richard III of England, a few days before his recently-discovered remains were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. It included prayers that Richard might “rest in peace” (he died in 1485!). Yet Scripture says that the righteous enjoy eternal rest: “He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness.” (Isa. 57:2)
The doctrine of purgatory is a deception for there is no such place. Above all it is an affront to the saving work of Christ. At Calvary Jesus atoned for the sins of His own, dying a sacrificial death that he might “redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people” (Tit. 2:14). We receive the benefits of His atonement through the appointed means of grace and by faith alone. The promise is that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
2) Our prayers cannot help those who are in hell
Christ related the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). At the end of his days Lazarus, though he had endured sickness and poverty, was carried by the angels into “Abraham’s bosom”: he had trusted in the Lord. The rich man by contrast went to hell and was in torments: his trust had been in his wealth. He was told that between heaven and hell “there is a great gulf fixed”, such that none can pass from one place to the other. Prayers for those who died in an unbelieving, Christless state are in vain.
Another important passage is Luke 13:1-5. When told of the cruel slaughter of the Galileans and the accident which befell some in Siloam, Christ replied: “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Those who lack repentance are not ready to meet God: they have no pardon and they will perish in their sins, with no prospect of any remedy. Scripture teaches that when we depart this life we enter into a fixed state: “if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be” (Ecc. 11:3). Those in hell have gone away into “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46) and cannot possibly profit from our prayers.
The Second Helvetic Confession summarises the historic position of the church: “For we believe that the faithful, after bodily death, go directly to Christ, and, therefore, do not need the eulogies and prayers of the living for the dead and their services. Likewise we believe that unbelievers are immediately cast into hell from which no exit is opened for the wicked by any services of the living.” (Ch. 26)
3) Prayers for the dead have no warrant in Scripture
Despite the clear message of these texts it is still claimed by some that the Bible supports prayers for the dead. The most commonly-cited text is in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:44,45) but we maintain that these books are not inspired and therefore “are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (WCF 1:3)
It is said that Moses prayed for Reuben after he had died: “Let Reuben live and not die” (Deut. 33:6). But this was a prophetic blessing for the tribe of that name in the generations to come, not a prayer for Jacob’s son who gave his name to the tribe but had long since departed.
It is said that Peter prayed for Tabitha after she had died: “But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise.” (Acts 9:40) However this was a miracle of God wrought through Peter whereby an individual was returned to life in this world, not a request that she might be enabled to progress in the next.
It is said that Paul prayed for Onesiphorus after he had died. “The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day” (2 Tim. 1:18). Yet nowhere are we told that Onesiphorus had actually died at the point when Paul was interceding for him.
We should note the example of David. When the son Bathsheba bore to him was sick David “besought God for the child”, with fasting and tears (2 Sam. 12:15,16). Yet when the child died David immediately ceased praying for him, saying, “But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast?” (vv.19-23). Praying for the dead has no warrant and is of no use: it is the living we should be remembering at the throne of grace.